PITTSBURGH (AP) – Fed up with the rising number of opiate overdoses in Western Pennsylvania, an Allegheny County judge is making convicted drug dealers buy lifesaving naloxone kits for the communities where they’ve sold drugs.
Judge Anthony Mariani has added the fine to two cases in the past week, ordering Andy Buxton to pay a total of $2,650 to three agencies in the Mon Valley and Larry Richardson to pay $1,250 to Ross/West View EMS – $50 for each brick of heroin the men were convicted of possessing with the intent to distribute.
Naloxone, known by the brand name Narcan, can reverse the effects of opiates such as heroin and halt an overdose.
“Ordering the defendant to provide funds for naloxone to the relevant agency will help to rehabilitate him and change his thinking,” Mariani said Tuesday while sentencing Richardson, 41, of Ross on two felony counts of possession with intent to deliver. He ordered Richardson to serve five to 10 years in prison.
Ross police found a bag with 25 bricks of heroin and 9 grams of cocaine in Richardson’s car.
Fatal drug overdoses in Allegheny County increased 37 percent between 2014 and 2015, for a total of 422 deaths last year, according to an analysis by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which Mariani cited as his reason for imposing the fine. Westmoreland County overdoses increased 43 percent to 126 deaths in the same period.
Westmoreland County judges have yet to impose similar sentencing conditions. Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio said Mariani’s plan is interesting and worth considering.
“The fact is that naloxone is saving lives. I wonder if maybe we should consider ordering the addicts to have naloxone. Having it in more hands is all the better,” said Bilik-DeFazio, one of the county judges who presides over a drug court program.
Tim Phillips, executive director of the county’s drug overdose task force, said making convicted drug dealers provide money for life-saving naloxone kits is a novel approach.
“This is the first I’ve heard of it, and I’m sure it could have a positive effect. It could be part of the solution. Anything that will save a life is worth considering,” Phillips said.
Richardson, who is black, maintained his innocence and said the crisis of overdose deaths was only a result of people noticing more drug abuse across racial groups.
“It wasn’t a problem when my dad and my uncle were OD’ing in the community back in the ’70s and ’80s,” he told Mariani before his sentence. “We didn’t have Narcan. … Now all of a sudden because it’s young white people coming into the city for drugs, it’s a problem.”
Mariani’s naloxone fine is a condition of the defendants’ probation and consecutive to their prison time, so they won’t have to start paying until they have been released. In Richardson’s case, Mariani allowed him to pay a minimum of $100 per month once he’s out of prison and has secured employment.
The $1,250 Richardson must pay is little compared with the $20,000 Ross/West View EMSA pays for medical supplies each year. Executive Director Brian Kircher said it could offset some of what the agency puts toward helping overdose victims.
“We don’t get reimbursement from insurance for patients we don’t transport. The majority of overdoses end up being refusals (for transport),” he said.
Ross/West View EMS has carried naloxone for more than 20 years, Kircher said, and was starting to train police in the region on how to administer the drug nasally in cases in which they arrive at an overdose before medics.
Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, said over-the-counter naloxone kits cost about $75, though police and EMS agencies might be able to get them for less through bulk buying, insurance coverage and grants. All EMS agencies typically carry the drug.
Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, said imposing the fines is within the judge’s power, though he was not sure whether the law allowed the fines to be steered to specific agencies.
Mike Manko, spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, declined to comment on the fines but noted that a grant from the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association allows the office to purchase naloxone kits for county police departments.